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How Alcohol Can Ruin Your Sleep

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Do you typically finish out your evenings with glass of wine, beer or even a shot to ease into sleep?

Consuming alcohol near bedtime can have a powerful, negative impact on your sleep quantity and quality. The effects of alcohol on sleep are apparently not common knowledge. A 2009 study found that 58 percent of 2,000 respondents were unaware that drinking can be detrimental to sleep.

Alcohol generally acts as a sedative and a small amount can and will induce sleepiness. Essentially, alcohol functions as a rapidly absorbed, relatively fast acting drug that gets to your brain within a few minutes. The drug metabolizes quickly and its effects pass within a few hours, depending on how much alcohol you consumed.

Using alcohol to get to sleep is by no means a new concept. Despite advances in sleep medicine, many people with trouble initiating or maintaining sleep self-medicate with alcohol and accept the consequences of fitful or unfulfilling sleep. In fact, it was not that long ago that physicians recommended "night caps" for insomniacs or others experiencing sleep problems. Using alcohol for sleep is a bad idea because it can affect sleep stages, lighten sleep and cause abrupt awakenings. Chronic use of alcohol may lead to needing higher and higher doses to achieve the same sleep-inducing effect.

The Sleep Cycle and Alcohol

Normal sleep consists of four stages that cycle throughout the night.

  • N1. The first step into sleep, N1 accounts for 4-5 percent of nightly sleep and functions as the brief transition period between sleep and wakefulness.
  • N2. A more consolidated stage, during which time your breathing pattern and heart rate begin to slow.
  • N3. Commonly known as "deep sleep" this is the stage when your body and brain are undergoing restoration.
  • REM. During REM sleep we often have action packed dreams. Parts of our brain are most active during the REM phase of sleep. Our muscles are essentially paralyzed during REM, preventing us from acting out dreams.

Sleep scientists have not determined all of the functions of sleep or the value of the various stages. All sleep stages are important and it is not possible to place more value on one stage or another.

Alcohol and the Sleep Stages

How does alcohol influence or change your sleep?

  • Alters the quality of your sleep. Even if you sleep a full night after drinking, you may not feel rested in the morning. Alcohol lightens sleep and suppresses REM.
  • Disrupts the total time you are asleep. You may wake up frequently throughout the night and have problems falling back asleep as the alcohol works through your system.
  • Increases the prevalence of pre-existing sleep disorders. Millions of Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, which can intensify after alcohol consumption. Sleep apnea is a breathing related sleep disorder, characterized by heavy snoring and abnormal pauses in breathing. Moderate to large amounts of alcohol consumed in the evening can lead to a substantial narrowing of the airway, increasing the frequency and duration of breath holding episodes.

Tips for Sleeping Well Without Alcohol

Worried that sacrificing that glass of wine will lead to all nighters? Try out a few sleep tips below to kick the nightcap habit.

  • Sleep/wake consistency. Your sleep routine should be as consistent as your personal hygiene routine. Just like you brush your teeth and comb your hair in a certain order each morning, try to maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle by going to bed around the same time every night and waking up around the same time every morning (yes, even on weekends).
  • Get moving! Exercise is a good way to reduce stress. Exercising in the late afternoon or early evening raises your core body temperature above normal. Your temperature will start falling by bedtime and this natural decrease in body heat helps initiate the sleep process.
  • Let the light shine in the morning. While you probably know that light tells the brain it is time to wake up, it also helps set your internal sleep/wake clock. Try eating breakfast outside -- sunlight exposure for just 30 minutes in the morning should help you stay alert throughout the day.
  • Kick your caffeine habit. It's no secret that caffeine is a stimulant. Avoid coffee, soda and tea after 2 p.m. If you need a natural boost, sip on a glass of ice water.

If you are concerned about the impact alcohol has on your sleep, discontinue drinking within a few hours of bedtime. In general, it takes about an hour to metabolize one ounce of alcohol. If your sleep problems persist despite your best efforts, talk with your family physician.

For more information on sleep and alcohol, visit the National Sleep Foundation at www.sleepfoundation.org.

Around the Web

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Alcohol use and sleep - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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